|Born in Israel, artist Shirley Wegner lives and works in New York, creating sculpture, installation, and photographic works from ‘assembled’ landscapes that often reflect constructed stage sets. These scenes are reminiscent of wastelands or construction sites, but with a heavy layer of artifice with the result that her working methods are subtly visible in the nature of her materials. These subtleties are intentionally left in the final photographic works: paper, wires, and the cotton wool of smoke are clearly evident.
These are constructions of construction sites, rubble; entropy is held in place.
“My practice is a constant negotiation between a young gaze that associates the landscape with home and an older, knowing gaze that accepts the impossibility of ever escaping a political landscape.”
Shirley Wegner, Explosion with Tractor Traces, 2006. Laserchrome on Diasec. 40 x 30, edition 5 private collection. Courtesy of the artist.
In Conversation: Paul Black Interviews Shirley Wegner
These are constructions of construction sites, rubble; entropy is held in place. These three-dimensional, modeled landscapes step closer to their own fiction through the visible traces of construction. Wegner gives direct instructions on how the assemblage is to be photographed by an independent photographer; the artist alters her own perception of the work through its evolution into a different form through instruction but not her own hand. The viewer is aware of the transition in exactly the reverse order: the image’s prior physical construction is evident through the presence of faint wires and materials. The viewer is aware that the primary object behind the image is also a fabrication by the artist.
In fact it is wrong to discuss these works in terms of primacy and secondariness. Rather, this process renders a timeless ambiguity, where the process of moving backwards or forwards through the work somehow removes any ordinal nature. This stillness is a continuum created, in this case, by the intentional fabrication of a wasteland. Wegner’s debris is artificial, her chaos is staged, her destruction is constructed. The artificial construction site signifies the building of ‘nothing,’ while the artificial debris signifies the destruction of ‘nothing;’ they are still, they are in essence inactive. These ‘puppeteered’ landscapes occupy, even create, a space between existing categories.
Paul Black: You often present works that have a nature similar to that of constructed stage sets, except that the framework of the structures are intentionally visible. You reveal your working methods as more than a mere aesthetic decision but also a conceptual one.
Shirley Wegner: Yes, it is important to me that the final picture has real elements and artifice entwined so that an ambiguity is formed and the viewing experience is slowed down. I think the visible wires are there not only to reveal the working methods but also to speak of the theatre of image-making and how our perception of the world is based on images we’ve often unknowingly categorized at a very tender age. Most of the images I am recreating probably infiltrated my mind when I was very young, growing up in a place like Israel. But another thing that infiltrates the work is the visual culture of my childhood, including early stop-motion animation TV and very low budget children’s and black-and-white television, which were designed literally as theatre stages where you could actually see the wires, the paper backdrops, so beautifully ill-made. This is also why the way I work often combines childlike materials and play, and borrows from the world of puppet theatre. It is a world that allows the child at once to experience the illusion and to see that this is not real. By the way, if I had to place myself in that theatre I would be the viewer, not the puppeteer herself, trying to reconstruct the memory of the viewing experience itself, to make sense of it all.
SW: The part of working on the installation is very different from photographing it. By setting up the camera I have already moved away from it. The camera allows for a compression of the set back into a two-dimensional space, back into a moment, a click of a memory. When I work on the set I work towards that moment of compression. With each step of construction, beginning with a backdrop and going through different ‘layers’ of scaled down objects, I think as a painter. The act of taking the picture is about finding that exact moment of compression. The photographer is there in a way as a translator, interpreting my gaze into a language of lighting and camera positioning etc. At the same time, it is a very hands-on process for me, and with every picture we take I am able to move further away from the installation and to see the image I had in my mind. Perhaps as you put it, working with the photographer has become my ‘method’ of understanding how the construction and the illusion work simultaneously but in the end there is never a full understanding of how this happens, there is only the experience of it. Taking a good picture means I am successfully trapped in an in-between space, where the construction and the illusion are inseparable from one another and can never be experienced as only one or the other.
PB: Would you also say that the imagery of constructed artifice and demolition evokes the history of your homeland and the landscape of Israel?
SW: Yes. I would hope that the work evokes imagery from my homeland. The historical imagery of Israel is the source material for my images. I work from my memory of it, from the imprint left by photographs I have seen of it, photos which were framing landscape as part of an ideological narrative of the early years. Each image I choose to work on is actually the last step in a process of cataloguing my repeating and sometimes evasive memories into some system. I actually have an index card box with thoughts and drawings sorted alphabetically! When I work on an image it is not about reconstructing a specific place or site, but rather capturing a moment where the landscape is stripped of its mythological power and has become a desolate land, a non-place, a possibility of ‘nowhere.’
PB: Your response to this environment is much like drawing the face of a long absent friend from memory. Could your process be described as a subjective, of-the-moment response to the landscape in question, and not a topographical one at all?
SW: In the very beginning I used to sit in libraries looking through books I could find with old pictures of Israel. Flipping through them again and again, I began to mark those images that made me pause. Where I paused told me something about my own construction and how I may remember. Not knowing why exactly I reacted to these images, they were enough to trigger the work in the studio later on because they activated a memory. I would like to think of it as a bat sonar system; it is about working from a state of not being able to see, from sensing, letting things come at you, to identifying the image as it slowly resurfaces. In the studio the landscape is then recreated in a similar way: the process is not one of reconstructing a topography, or making an accurate ‘model.’ It is about searching through materials, playing with scale, and with how objects meet one another in space that creates a familiarity with the landscape – like the face of a long absent friend, yes.
PB: Would you consider applying your process to an installation piece?
SW: Once the ground has been built on, or planted on, or has been worked on, or even bombed, it becomes someone’s somewhere. In other words, it moves from being a Nowhere to a Landscape; from Land to Territory; from neutral to subjective. In that, I am not sure an objective landscape can ever exist. The landscape, no matter how desolate or empty it may be—or perhaps because of that—cannot be interpreted objectively once it has been imbued with ideas, homes, territories, peoples, enemies … It is that moment of post-landscape that I am after, of what happened to the land after it has been built on, or planted on, and charged with ideology. In bringing this landscape back to my studio I am deconstructing it to the elements that made its physical surface and its ideology at the same time, to the point that I can reassemble the image I remember of that landscape. But the sets are not made with the intention of exhibiting them, or even keeping them. They are not precious artifacts, quite the contrary. Just as we remember through images whose objects have long expired, the objects that made the sets no longer matter. The set and its photograph cannot co-exist. For this reason I would not exhibit the set as an installation. What sometimes happens is that through the work on the sets, certain elements keep recurring and capture my attention mostly because they occupy territories of duality, and have areas of in-between-ness, and through researching possible material, scale, and composition they can become installations.
SW: Initially the tractor traces are present at the backdrop of the sets as printed or painted forms, or as indentation marks, sometimes they would be carved into the materials on the ground. Once they are taken out of the set, the theater, the tractor traces become a subject of a different kind of investigation. No longer appearing as a tire mark in the landscape, no longer representing a ‘negative’ element in space, they now take on an animated form and eventually become a ghostly spine-like shape. In preparing for this installation I did not cast an actual tire mark but was instead looking for a shape that would be an interpretation of the physical trace, allowing for different associations to come into play. Tractor Traces evolved from being one element of many in a landscape to an archetypal form that affects this landscape. The traces slowly took a shape of their own, presented like a form of ancient species that has been excavated. Their presence in the landscape seems on one hand almost mundane and on the other hand their imprint on the ground is a reminder of what was there before or what will be there after; they fix in time a moment of pre-construction or post-destruction, rendering the landscape ‘nowhere.’ I would like to think of Tractor Traces as offering the viewer a glimpse into a moment of forensic work, an attempt to recover the traces, to excavate the bones of an ancient species, to offer to think of it as an archetype of a kind.
PB: Finally, we return to the artificial wasteland, the artifice of staged rubble, and, importantly, the building of ‘nothing’ and the destruction of ‘nothing.’ Does this evasion of direct representation reflect an attempt to render objectivity through the process, as an apolitical position that you have chosen as an artist, a neutrality in relation to the potentially political nature of the depiction of an Israeli landscape?
SW: I think that the intentional emotional ambiguity about the landscapes reflects the impossibility of taking any one, specific stance; it is a conscious understanding that there is not one way to talk about or walk the line of memory. It is neither political nor apolitical. In my studio I often become aware of treading a thin line between nostalgia and criticism. On one hand there is a longing to revive these places that are buried in memory and represent home to me; and on the other, there is an obvious consciousness of the dialectics of territory embedded in them. It is a practice of constant negotiation between a young gaze that associates landscape with home and an older, critical, and knowing gaze that accepts the impossibility of ever escaping a political landscape. It is ongoing, cyclical process of looking and questioning, building, and de-constructing. I would like to stay away from being the all-knowing puppeteer. Instead, I look at the wires from across the room, not from above, and I watch as the works come to life and go back to illusion.